Bobbie Nelson Dies, Willie Nelson’s Sister and Bandmate

Bobbie Nelson Dies, Willie Nelson’s Sister and Bandmate
Willie Nelson; Photo credit: Pamela Springsteen

Bobbie Nelson, Willie Nelson’s sister and bandmate since 1973, died on Thursday, March 10. According to a statement by the Nelson family, she died “peacefully and surrounded by family.” She had been in the hospital recently for an undisclosed illness. The last time she performed with The Willie Nelson Family Band was at the Whitewater Amphitheater in New Braunfels, Texas last October after Willie began playing concerts again after the pandemic took most singers off the road.

“Her elegance, grace, beauty and talent made this world a better place,” the statement reads. “She was the first member of Willie’s band, as his pianist and singer. Our hearts are broken and she will be deeply missed. But we are so lucky to have had her in our lives. Please keep her family in your thoughts and give them the privacy they need at this time.”

Willie and Bobbie Nelson; Photographer: Todd V. Wolfson

Bobbie was born in Abbott, Texas, north of Waco. She and Willie were raised by their paternal grandparents. It was Bobbie’s grandmother who taught her to play piano and read music when she was six years old. She and Willie, who learned to play guitar from his grandfather, grew up playing in the local Methodist Church. They also began playing in honky-tonks when they were teens as part of a western swing band in the 1950’s and 60’s that included their father, Ira Nelson, and Bobbie’s husband, Arlyn “Bud” Fletcher. She and Fletcher were married when she was 16.

Before becoming a member of Willie’s band, Bobbie worked for a department store that sold Hammond Organs in Fort Worth, Texas. She then moved to Austin, Texas and on to Nashville where she played in various venues before Nelson called her to New York to play on his first album for Atlantic Records, The Troublemaker.

It is said she was the first person Willie called to play on the album, thus the beginning of the Willie Nelson Family Band was born. She went on to play on other prominent Nelson albums including Phases and Stages, Red-Headed Stranger and Stardust. 

Although she was the older of the two, Nelson always referred to her as his little sister and the better musician of the two. He never failed to spotlight her on a few songs during his concerts, with one of the crowd favorites being “Down Yonder.”

In 2008 Bobbie released a solo album, Audiobiography. In 2017 she was inducted into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame. In 2020, Bobbie and Willie published a joint memoir, Me and Sister Bobbie: True Tales of the Family Band. The following year they released a children’s book, Sister, Brother, Family: An American Childhood in Music.  

Willie has dates scheduled for March 17, March 20, March 26 and April 2 on his ranch in Spicewood, Texas, near Austin. A spokesperson for the family said that those shows will continue as scheduled.

This is an excerpt from a letter Willie wrote to Sister Bobbie that Willie’s producer, Buddy Cannon, shared on his Facebook page: “I never loved you more than when you played that first piano Mama bought and I sat close as you told me what chord and what key you were playing in. Or later when I got to sit beside you and play along on my Stella guitar. You were a natural musician from the beginning, and I would never have become the musician I am without you. I never loved you more than when you finally joined my band, and we truly became the Willie Nelson Family Band. You were part of the reason that everyone who’s played in the band are truly family. We are living proof of the unforeseeable and guaranteed value of families holding their bonds to each other.”

“Peace to the Nelson family. Yesterday Willie and his family lost Sister Bobbie Nelson. I am honored to have known Bobbie and to have witnessed the love between Sister Bobbie and all their family. My heart is with Willie. I know how much he and Sister loved each other. We talked about it. RIP Bobbie Nelson.” – Buddy Cannon 

“To truly understand the loss our family has gone through recently, to understand what a monumental figure my Aunt Bobbie Nelson was in all of our lives, and why.. pick up this book (Me and Sister Bobbie: True Tales of the Family Band) …the audio is narrated by her and my father Willie Nelson… it’s a relationship that spans 88 years.. a story of the realest love… she was the most incredible person I knew… a literal angel … I will miss her.” — Lukas Nelson

“So many times we have watched Bobbie Nelson, with love and admiration, from across the stage. The Nelson family has been so kind and generous to us to let us join them. I can’t help but feel like we are part of an endless “thread” when I think about our sister Bonnie, like Bobbie, on the keys making our art and our efforts complete. Bobbie Nelson will be missed dearly and we send the Nelsons love and prayer in this mournful time of her passing. Rest In Peace, Bobbie.” — Scott Avett, the Avett Brothers

“We send our deepest regards and respect to the Nelson family. Bobbie Nelson was a beautiful and extremely talented woman. We will miss her dearly.” — Alejandro and Nancy Escovedo

“Anytime I’ve ever been in the company of Willie Nelson and Family, they’ve treated me and all of us in the band like family. We’ll miss Bobbie. May God comfort Willie, his family, and all of us who loved her.” —  Lyle Lovett 

“Rest well Bobbie Nelson. Sweetheart deluxe. Our prayers to @WillieNelson and his family. Godspeed.” -Toby Keith

“Bobbie Nelson was one of the first women musicians that I ever saw on stage. She was the first example I had of a woman playing music while also having a family. I’m honored to have known her. My deepest sympathies to the Nelson family.” – Amanda Shires

On behalf of Farm Aid, Executive Director Carolyn Mugar issued the following statement on the death of Bobbie:

“We are deeply saddened by the passing of Bobbie Nelson, Farm Aid artist and beloved ‘little’ sister to our President and Founder Willie Nelson. Bobbie was a cherished member of the Farm Aid family, and her incredible piano talents delighted Farm Aid audiences for more than 36 years. Bobbie’s presence on the Farm Aid stage was a hallmark of every festival, and her warm spirit will forever be a part of Farm Aid. Bobbie was a quiet, steadfast champion for Farm Aid and farmers, and we know our entire community is grateful to have experienced her musical gifts.”